Revolutions of 1848: A Social History

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Many books on 1848 tend to be heavily analytical. They focus on the connecting factors and underlying causes of the Revolutions, and thus tend to lose the narrative. Priscilla Robertson, however, fortunately takes the opposite approach. She focuses on a few of the major upheavals during 1848, and retells each of them as a single contained story.

Of course, it would be impossible to cover every single 1848 Revolution in one book. (“No one has ever numbered the revolutions which broke out in Europe in 1848” Robertson writes in the introduction. “…[But] there must have been over 50”.) Robertson therefore narrows her focus to France, Germany, the Austrian Empire (including a subsection on Hungary), Italy, and a short afterward on Britain and Ireland.

Even within these major countries, there were several different cities that experienced different revolutions. Therefore, in the section on Italy, for example, Robertson breaks it up by devoting separate chapters to Milan, to Rome, and to Venice.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Robertson is an excellent story teller, and she’s able to not only make the history come alive, but also to create a lot of suspense in the narrative. On the whole, it makes for enthralling reading.

The disadvantage, however is that every 75 pages or so you get pulled out of one story and have to work at getting yourself immersed into another. If you’re reading the whole thing straight through, it’s a bit jolting to go through the trouble of acquainting yourself with all the circumstances and actors in one revolution, only to find yourself yanked out and transported across the map into another set of circumstances and characters. The stories of the rise and fall of each different revolutionary government can start to feel repetitive after a while.

However, with a little bit of self-discipline, if you stick with the book I did find that I would gradually get immersed into each separate story. And because Robertson works so hard to recreate the feeling of those days, I had the pleasure of feeling like I was transported to several exotic cities in 19th century Europe. The reader of this book gets to spend time in revolutionary Paris, the student government in Vienna, Milan, Rome, Venice, Frankfurt, Dresden, various cities in Hungary, et cetera. (For someone like me who has never been to Europe, it was a great way to visit all of these cities vicariously).

There were a lot of emotions in the 1848 Revolutions, and Robertson does a good job of guiding us through them all. At the outbreak of the revolutions, we can feel the romanticism at each the dream of a utopian republic. “All schools of romantic thought had their day in 1848,” Robertson writes (p. 367).

Once the new governments begin to crumble, this early optimistic feeling all too quickly leads to despair, which Robertson also captures. Of the various people she quotes, perhaps the Russian socialist Herzen describes it most eloquently. “Half of our hopes, half of our beliefs were slain, ideas of skepticism and despair haunted the brain and took route in it. One could never have supposed that, after passing through so many trials, after being schooled by contemporary skepticism, we had so much left in our souls to be destroyed” (p. 96).

As often happens in history, the old order reasserted itself with astonishing brutality, and Robertson records several civilian massacres when the revolution fell.

1848 stands at the crossroads of history in more than one-way, and Robertson explores many of these. For one thing, 1848 represented the split between republicans and socialists. Under the old system, capitalists and workers alike felt themselves constrained by feudalism, causing the industrial class to often be at the forefront of the revolution. “1848 was the last time that business could seem radical” Robertson writes of the Vienna Revolution (p. 206).

Before 1848, most European republicans dreamed of a utopian fusion of the classes under a liberal republican government. “Only after the liberals won power did they discover that they were afraid of the workers; when the workers found this out, they turned to Marxian gospel” (p. 6).

1848 also saw the emergence of nationalism as a popular force. The desire for the various German and Italian states to unite as one country, as well as the desire for the independence among the various ethnic groups in the Austria-Hungarian Empire. As Robertson points out, the failure to resolve these matters in 1848 has been the cause of much of the bloodshed in the 20th century in the former Austria-Hungarian lands.

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Because the action in this book spans across a whole continent, it takes in its scope most of the prominent names of the time: Garibaldi, Mazzini, Bakunin, George Sand, Marx and Engels, Jacob Grimm, Metternich, Richard Wagner, Herzen, and Proudhon all figure prominently in this book (to list some of the bigger names). But there are many, many more names to keep track of. In each country we visit, we are introduced to the figures of the old regime, the moderates, the republicans, and the radicals. It’s a bit daunting keeping track of everyone, and it required a lot of going back to the index for me. Fortunately, the index in this book is excellent. So, if you don’t mind having to flip back and forth occasionally, it’s not a huge problem.

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A lot of popular history books recently are often advertised as having parallels to our current situation, or are recommended for leaders in Washington. But if I was controlling the reading list of Washington, I’d make sure to add this book. It shows the difficulties of creating republics in countries that are not used to democratic traditions, and how fragile those new republican governments can be.

(Of course, it has yet to be seen whether the United States is serious about creating democratic institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or simply establishing client states. But assuming the neo-cons are serious about building new republican governments, I think this book can help illuminate the mine-field they’re getting into.)

Interestingly enough though, this is not a recent book. It was first published in 1952. I’m not sure if any new scholarship on the subject makes it outdated now, but when I last in a major bookstore I saw it was still up on the shelves.

Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History, (Princeton University Press, 1971).

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History of the Paris Commune

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This book is regarded by Marxists as the official history of the Paris Commune. The author, Lissagaray, participated in the Paris Commune and fought on the barricades although, in his own words, he was “neither member, nor officer, nor functionary of the Commune.”

Following the fall of the Commune, Lissagaray was one of the lucky ones who escaped the massacre and he spent the next 6 years writing his History of the Paris Commune of 1871. In exile in England, Lissagaray became part of Karl Marx’s inner circle. The English edition of History of the Paris Commune was translated into English by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx, and Karl Marx himself expanded and corrected some of the analysis for the English edition.

(Interestingly enough, although Karl Marx approved of Lissagaray’s historical work, he strongly disapproved of Lissagaray personally, and was greatly distressed when his daughter Eleanor became engaged to Lissagaray. Among other books, Karl Marx: A Life provides a fascinating look at the intense drama this doomed engagement caused the Marx family.)

It is for this reason that the publisher’s introduction recommends that for full effect this book be read in combination with Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France. However, having read The Civil War in France, I think I can safely say that the reading of one is not essential to the understanding of the other by any means, although it is interesting to see occasionally some of the exact same phrases in both books.

I do recommend, however, that Lissagaray’s work not be read as an introduction to the Paris Commune. It was written only 6 years after its fall, and as a contemporary history assumes the reader is familiar with many of the names and events in the book, and is seeking only a greater analysis of what happened.

The ideal reader of this book is already familiar with at least the basics of the Paris Commune and its place in history. Some knowledge of the geography of Paris is a plus (although I was able to struggle through without any). The ideal reader is also interested in both military and social history. He or she wants to know exactly what ideological issues divided the members of the Paris Commune as well as what order the barricades fell during the Versailles invasion.

This is not a light read, but for the historically minded willing to put in the effort to engage it, it will yield a wonderful treasure of knowledge that will take the reader directly into the meetings of the Communard government and also right into the thick of the street fighting. It is hard to find a more detailed work on the Paris Commune, and Lissagaray even goes so far as to explore in detail the short lived Communard uprising that rose up in French provinces at the same time, a subject usually neglected by contemporary histories.

The lessons to be drawn from the book are numerous, and the book is just as heavy with analysis as with details. The reader learns very quickly that in Lissagaray’s vocabulary being called a “leftist” or a “liberal” is not a compliment. Right from the September 4th republican revolution, where Lissagaray begins his history, he shows how the left had no courage at all, and the men who claimed to represent the Paris working people (Louis Blanc, Leon Gambetta) consistently betrayed them. This theme is carried throughout the book, and Lissagaray demonstrates again and again how the left not only abandoned the people, but also the bourgeois liberal representatives in Versailles actively supported many of that government’s atrocities.

However if the bourgeois left is crucified in Lissagaray’s writings, the radicals and representatives of the Paris Commune do not always come off better. Although an obvious partisan of the Paris Commune, Lissagarary’s purpose in writing was not to enshrine the members of the Paris Commune in revolutionary saint hood, but provide an unflinching look at where they erred. As Lissagaray writes in his introduction, “The child has the right to know the reason of the paternal defeats, the Socialist party the campaign of its flag in all countries. He who tells the people revolutionary legends, he who amuses them with sensational stories, is as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators.”

Some members of the Paris Commune are criticized more than others. Most of Lissagaray’s venom is directed against Felix Pyat and Gustave Cluseret. Felix Pyat is shown as a loudmouth who is more concerned with scoring points against his political rivals inside the Paris Commune than protecting the revolution against Versailles. In fact Lissagaray lays the blame for most of the divisions among the Communards at the feet of Pyat. At one point in the book, another member of the Commune tells Pyat, “You are the evil genius of this revolution.”

Cluseret, charged with the defence of the Commune, is portrayed as being incredibly arrogant and criminally negligible, and personally responsible for many of Versailles early victories.

Other members of the commune are treated with much more respect, (although no one completely escapes criticism). Charles Delescluze emerges as one of the heroes of the commune, and his heroic death on the barricades is reported with great reverence and apparently even witnessed by Lissagaray himself.

The great tragedy of this book, also emphasized again and again by Lissagaray, is that the Paris Commune did not have to fail. If the Commune leaders had been able to better defend Paris, or if the Commune uprisings in the provinces had been better organized, the revolution could have succeeded. It was not for lack of popular support, either in Paris or in the provinces, that the revolution failed, but as a result of first the leftists betraying the people, and secondly the radical leaders bungling the task.

The last third of the book is dedicated to the fall of the commune, the mass execution of the communards, the kangaroo trials of the survivors, and the fate of the exiles in New Caledonia. The vicious cruelty of the bourgeoisie displayed here in these chapters almost has to be read in its entirety to be appreciated. Lissagaray shows very clearly how little the life of the working poor is worth, and contrasts the moderation and humaneness of the Commune with the massacres sanctioned by Versailles. The Commune did execute 62 hostages, but this was an act of desperate mob fury not sanctioned by the Commune government. The Versailles government engaged in a planned systematic massacre of the proletariat of Paris. Lissagaray also demonstrates how the priests and nuns of Paris approved and aided in this massacre.

Prosper Oliver Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, (New Park Publications, 1976). *

* While this book is out of print, is available from numerous online used book sellers. It can also be read in its entirety online.

The Insurrectionist (The Jacques Vingtras Trilogy)

Jules Valles, a life long rebel, activist, and anarchist, is famous for his role in the Paris Commune and for his Jacques Vingtras trilogy. Jules Valles was elected a member of the Paris Commune, and later appointed Minister of Education under the Commune, during which time he created free and undenominational public schooling. After the fall of the Commune, he was condemned to death, but escaped to Belgium and later England.

It was in England that he began his autobiographical work under the pseudonym of Jacques Vingtras. Although Jules Valles does take some advantage of the Roman-a-clef nature of fiction to change some of the chronology and minor details, the Jacques Vingtras trilogy is frequently used by historians as if it were a memoir.

Partly owing to the politicized nature of his work, Jules Valles has long been regarded as one of the French Literary cannon’s minor writers. However, like many overlooked writers, Valles’s works are periodically rediscovered by different generations and thrust back in the limelight every now and again.

During the May 1968 Revolution in France there was renewed interest in Jules Valles. He was found quoted by student graffiti on the walls of Paris during the student rebellion, and his works were republished in both French and English.

After the 68 generation, Jules Valles has been largely forgotten again, although recently the New York Review Books has republished The Child, the first book in the Jacques Vingtras trilogy.

“The Child” chronicles Jules Valles’s childhood from hell caught in between the middle class cult of respectability and the traditional bourgeois classical education. The book begins with the words: “I dedicate this book to all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents.” Although this story is certainly anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment, it is of limited direct political value. However, it has been described as one of the funniest books in French literature, and can be recommended as a fun read to anyone (activist or otherwise) looking for a light book.

The second book in the series The Graduate, describes the 1848 Revolution, the 1851 coup by Napoleon III, and the struggle of Jules Valles and his friends to keep the socialist movement alive during the repressive period of the second empire. It has, to the best of my knowledge, never been translated into English. Or at least, a search of the Internet reveals neither current nor used copies available for sale.

The Insurrectionist, which describes the workers movement of the 1860s culminating in the Paris Commune, is of the most interest to the activist. The English edition is not currently in print, but can be found at some libraries, used bookstores, and Internet booksellers.

The story begins with Jules Valles in 1857 having gone against his morals and accepted a job as a teacher after living on the streets for many years. His former friends criticize his cowardice and hypocrisy, but after years of starving himself he is unable to resist the lure of steady meals and a paycheck. However his new found security is not to last long. Valles loses his job after telling the students never to pay attention to anything they are taught in school.

He then briefly becomes a government clerk, and loses that job after giving a seditious speech at one of the clubs. He struggles to find work in journalism. He participates in several anti-government demonstrations, but he and his colleagues are never able to mount a serious challenge to the Napoleonic Empire.

Jules Valles was recruited by his socialist friends to run against the moderate republican Jules Simon in the governmental elections. Although Jules Simon was the leader of the republican opposition to Napoleon at the time, some of the socialists thought it was important to provide a socialist alternative in the election. Others thought the candidacy would take votes away from Jules Simon and strengthen Napoleon. Jules Valles ended up being caught up in the middle of this debate. Of course since these strategic electoral issues are still debated by radicals today, the candidacy of Jules Valles and the debate around it should still be of interest.

Then the Franco-Prussian war begins, and Jules Valles is beat up while participating in a peace demonstration. Since he is beat up not by police but by workers, the very people he had spent his whole life trying to help, he feels particularly discouraged.

“I regret my sacrificed youth, the life I have given to starvation, the pride I have given to the dogs, the future I have spoiled for a mob I thought had a soul, a mob I wanted to honor by giving it all the strength I had so painfully amassed. And now I see that very same mob sucking up to soldiers, dogging the steps of regiments, cheering colonels whose epaulets are still sticky with the blood of December, shouting “Kill them!” when we say we want to silence the trumpets by ramming rags down their bells. It is the greatest disillusionment of my life.”

However as every historian knows, the initial war euphoria soon gave way to anger and disillusionment when the French army started loosing. Valles chronicles in his book first the republican revolution of September 4, next the failed socialist uprising of October 30, and finally the Paris Commune.

Although he sat as a member of the Commune, Valles work offers almost no insight into the ideological struggle behind the Commune, although he does describe some of his personality clashes with other members. It is for this reason that Valles is frequently accused of adventurism by Marxist critics, but in The Insurrectionist Valles is much more interested in chronicling the experience of revolution than the ideology behind it.

The Insurrectionist repeatedly deals with the intersection of the political with the personal, probably the most striking example of which is the following scene from the fall of the Commune, in which Valles witnesses an accused spy about to be executed:

Another one denied being a traitor and asked to be led “before the proper authorities.” He spoke as a coupon clipper from Le Marais. “I’ve never been mixed up in politics.”

“That’s why I’m killing you,” replied a fighter who’d been hit in the left paw one hour before, and was using his right paw to aim a revolver at the man in the grip of the crowd. And he was about to shoot when it was decided that people perhaps should not be executed without proof and that this man should be led to Public Safety the “authorities” he was begging for as often as his sobs would allow. “The committee’ll let him go, as sure as I’ve lost five fingers,” grumbled the wounded man, shaking his red stump.

“Not mixed up in politics! They’re the biggest cowards of all. I hate that kind of a son of a bitch! They wait until after the slaughter to see who to spit on and who to suck up to!”

Valles himself can probably be classified as an anarchist, although he belonged to the generation of anarchists more influenced by Proudhon than Bakunin. He was part of the Proudhonist minority on the Paris Commune which was consistently outvoted by the Jacobin majority, but once again Valles prefers to describe this in terms of personality instead of politics:

“I hate Robespierre the deist, and I don’t think we should ape Marat, the galley slave of suspicion, the lunatic of the terror, the maniac of the bloody age. My curses join with [the majority] when they attack [the reactionists] but more sacrilegious than they, I also spit on Robespierre’s vest.”

Almost no time is given to the Commune’s deliberations, but Valles gives a lot of space to the fall of the Commune and bloody week. Most of the Commune’s members were killed, and Valles barely escapes himself by disguising himself as an ambulance driver.

Both the massacre of civilians by the Versailles army and shooting of hostages by the commune horrifies Valles, and he makes a vain attempt to save some of the hostages. If there is a consistent ideological thread to Valles’s work, it is the horror of cruelty and killing, and yet he is not without his mixed feelings about the necessity of violence in a revolution as revealed by this exchange following the execution of a spy:

A man came up to me. “Citizen, do you want to see what a traitor’s corpse looks like?” “Someone’s been executed?” “Yeah a baker, he denied it at first, then he admitted it.” The federal saw me turn pale. “Maybe you would have voted for acquittal-Jesus God! Can’t you see that to smash in one Judas’ head saves the heads of a thousand of your own men! Blood horrifies me, and my hands are covered with it; he grabbed me and held on when I shot him! But where would you be if you couldn’t find anybody to kill spies?” Someone intervened in the debate. “That’s not all! You want to keep your paws clean for the time when you stand before the court or posterity! And we’re the ones, the poor, the workers, the ones who always have to do the dirty work. So everyone can spit on us later, right?” That angry man was speaking the truth. Yes, you want to stay clean for history and not have slaughterhouse filth attached to your name. Admit that to yourself, Vingtras, and don’t consider it a virtue that your face turned white before the dead baker.

One final note: for those with a historical interest, The Insurrectionist is also useful for the first hand description we get of other famous French radicals, such as Blanqui, Rigault, Varlin, Vermorel, and Michelet. However, for those unfamiliar with French history, there can be a lot of strange names and references to keep track of, so be forewarned.

Jules Valles, The Insurrectionist, (Xs Books, 1988).

Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution

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Both from the title and the opening dedication of the book to the deceased singer of the legendary punk band The Clash, it is clear that Mark Steel’s <Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution is not going to be a stale and overly academic history of one Europe’s great revolutions. Steel is writing not to bemoan the deaths of the royal family and their supporters, as so many historians do, but rather to examine how both how the revolution was led “from below” by the poor and how it has been portrayed in histories since. Steel describes how the period is regularly portrayed as a period to be hated, yet he finds inspiration in the actions of ordinary French citizens who realized that their collective power could topple a regime that was believed its power came from God. He examines all the “major” events of the period while also exploring the minor events that have been frequently ignored, especially focusing on events and activities that challenge the prevailing interpretations of the French Revolution. He writes with the passion that writing about a revolutionary movement demands, eschewing the dispassionate and stale rhetoric that so often characterizes how history is written and instead brings to the front the inspiration that the study of revolutionary movements should give to contemporary activists.

Having received a degree in history and having an interest in pedagogy and its relationship to social movements, I found Steel’s comments and analysis on historiography of the period to be one of the most interesting aspects of his book. While never focusing any significant time on the French Revolution while in college, the topic was addressed briefly in the compulsory “World History” courses (renamed from “Western Civilization” in order to attempt to mask the fact that they were in reality primarily histories of “great” white leaders). The courses presented the French Revolution in a generally vague and convoluted manner, ignoring the specifics of what happened to focus on “key” aspects such as King Louis XVI lavish spending, the “unfortunate” status of the lower classes (with little analysis of why people were starving), the storming of the Bastille, the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the reign of “Terror,” and the rise of Napoleon. The brief overview had an underlying sympathy for the royal family, essentially suggesting that while there were significant problems with inequality, revolution was not a solution. Of course, in a system where the King’s power is believed to derive from God, there really is no other option, but such is the use of history when it is taught in a manner that promotes an ideological adherence to capitalism. People can, occasionally, organize in “official” ways, such as demanding the right to vote or asking for legal equality, but once they begin to challenge the underlying basis of society, they are forever seen as “extremists” in “official” histories.

Throughout the book, Steel weaves in an analysis of other histories of the French Revolution, but it is his two introductions (one to this US edition and the other to the original British version) in which he provides the bulk of this analysis. Steel argues that the French Revolution has been portrayed as a “dreadful episode with no redeeming features.” This has been aided by popular films and novels, which have advocated an idea that most of the revolutionaries were bloodthirsty and unthinking. Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that the influential histories of the period have advanced similar assertions, with books such as Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution and Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, containing numerous personal attacks on leaders of the revolution, especially Jean Paul Marat. Other books, including The French Revolution and Its Legacy, have gone so far as to say that Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were the “heirs of the French Revolution.” At the same time, other historians have advanced an interpretation that the French Revolution had no lasting impact. In both interpretations, the Terror is played up as being a defining feature of the revolution, while the efforts to create a society based on fairness, equality, and democracy have been minimized.

Vive la Revolution is an entertaining book that is both easy to read and useful in illuminating one of the more misunderstood periods in European history. For those who have relied on their basic western civilization textbooks to learn about this period or even those who have undertaken a more detailed study of the period using more scholarly sources, they have likely seen the revolution portrayed as an uncoordinated and horribly violent attack on “order” that resulted in a “dark” period of European history. In an amusing and lucid way, Steel rejects such interpretations and shows that it had components that constituted a “revolution from below” and argues that it is possible to find inspiration for contemporary struggles within the French revolution. Steel ends the book by discussing how the French Revolution shows that when “peasants, slaves, postmen and washerwomen” get together they can change the world because “there are more of them than there are nobles, priests and kings.” He relates this to the present by pointing out that the 360 richest people in the world own the same amount as the poorest 2 billion, suggesting that the current system is vulnerable if organizing brought together the 2 billion.

Mark Steel, Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution, (Haymarket Books, 2006).

Seven Red Sundays

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While I am generally not a fan of fiction, I often find myself gravitating towards novels that have a “radical” undercurrent in them or that take place within revolutionary periods. It was for this reason that I picked up Sender’s a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0929587294?ie=UTF8&tag=medmou-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0929587294″&gt;Seven Red Sundays, a novel written in 1936 during the revolutionary upheaval in Spain and the Spanish Civil War.

The subject of the novel is a group of revolutionaries in Madrid who are affiliated with the FAI (a Spanish anarchist organization) and what happens after a seven-day period. The upheaval begins with the murder of their comrades at a syndicalist meeting, followed by a general strike that throws the countries into a chaos–a situation in which it is unclear as to whether or not there will be a revolution or if things will return to normal. During this period, the characters engage in various tactics including sabotage and distribution of literature, all while working towards the goal of a libertarian (anarchist) Spain.

The book does an excellent job of capturing the revolutionary spirit of Spain and the periods of euphoric hope and despair that often accompany revolutionary periods. There are passages that are intensely beautiful in the novel, but there are also many that are rather bland, although this could be a conscious effort by the author to capture both the hopes and disappointments of revolutionary periods. While this novel is by no means bad, and indeed has a rather innovative writing and narrative style for the time, I think that George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a much better work for those that are searching for a fictional treatment of the revolutionary Spain.

Ramon J. Sender, Seven Red Sundays, (Elephent Paperback, 1990).

Making Theory Meaningful–Abolishing Theory

Reprinted from Freedom Toast (April 2003)

“There are no revolutionary thoughts, only revolutionary actions” (1, 2)

As university students, especially students in the humanities, much of our education consists of the study of various theories and theory has become one of the major topics of study at the university, transcending lines separating the disciplines to the point where it is not common to see Foucault’s discussions cited in anthropological studies, historical studies, in literary criticism, and in sociological studies. The use of theory in academic studies outside of the disciplines traditionally associated with theory has certainly contributed different perspectives and allowing for new insights; however, theory has simultaneously been reduced from its previous position as a catalyst for revolutionary change in society, instead becoming an easy way for intellectuals to satisfy their academic ego without affecting the world. Theory, which once enjoyed a close relationship with revolutionary movements, has become little more than an intellectual pursuit of what remains, for the majority of people, an abstract discourse with little bearing on the reality experienced by most people. Within this context, it is not unsurprising that students who have been exposed to various revolutionary theories have completely neglected the very essence of the theories they purport to study–the desire to transform society. In recent years, the reduction of theory has paralleled a decline in student activism, where students have become content to “study” conditions in society without doing anything to change society. They “study” growing poverty which comes during a time of unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the destruction of the natural environment, and the continued perfection of forms of domination and social control–all of which seem to exist on an abstract level for many. Increasingly, students are content to identify these problems and ignore solutions—the sociology major identifies the causes of poverty and does nothing to combat them, the psychology major examines the mental conditions in society which come as a result of the insanity of capitalism and hierarchy without trying to address the core problems, the history major identifies the historical origins of these problems and does nothing about them, the biology major does not work to alter the systemic causes of environmental degradation, and the political science major studies how to perfect forms of control rather than working towards genuine democracy. Just as academic study has become completely separated from society, casting aside any type of serious effort at affecting society, theory has experienced a similar decline–becoming something that is confined to academic books and discourse, rather than being a catalyst for social change.

Now that theory has largely become the province of academics and students, existing only within the context of the university, theory has become increasingly useless. Theory’s existence is meaningful only if it becomes a catalyst for change, if it is simply a subject of study, effectively breaking off any hope of “praxis,” theory must be abolished (3). In the late 19th century, revolutionary theory was closely linked with movements to transform society, including theories such as socialism and communism (4). The same was true of anarchism, in that the theory existed both in theoretical discourse and among a movement of people that sought to transform society, not simply writing about and discussing problems without attempting to change them. In the 1960s, after decades of revolutionary theory becoming increasingly separated from any attempt to change society, especially within the Marxist canon, the theorists of the Situationist International, based in France, made it their project to create a revolutionary theory which would not exist simply for academics, but rather to be a catalyst for action. For the situationists, theory was not just for academics, but rather it existed to “transform the world and change life” in a revolutionary manner (5). Situationist writings were a call to Marxists, anarchists, and other “revolutionaries” to be revolutionary–a challenge to rediscover what was truly revolutionary about those theories–the desire to change society. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to evaluate the extent to which the situationists call for a unity between theory and praxis was heeded by revolutionaries, the situationists were elaborating on a critique set forth by other marxists, who had become fed up with the absorption of Marxism by academia and parliamentary parties (6). However, in the post-May 1968 intellectual milieu, theory in France has once again reverted to inconsequential ramblings with little bearing on the world outside of academia.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the deterioration of theory is the whole “postmodern” project, a theoretical body that claims to be revolutionary, yet functions as little more than a testament to the present poverty of theory. Postmodernism makes no attempt to be accessible to the general population; instead, it is steeped in rhetorical blabbering and exists almost exclusively within the confines of academia. Where postmodernism has any influence beyond academia, it tends to be found within pseudo-intellectuals and nihilists who have little interest in any unity between theory and practice. Moreover, postmodernism is often described as a form of Marxist theory, citing its roots in Marxism, and it very well may–but in reality, it provides little more than cover for intellectuals who do not want to change society in any concrete manner, yet want to be associated with Marxism. This lack of enthusiasm for changing society is most certainly not a legitimate legacy of Marxism, and instead of cultivating a revolutionary theory derived from Marxism–which would entail working towards revolutionary change, postmodernism makes no effort to create a better world. Instead, postmodernism promotes a type of intellectual fatalism in which there is a fascination with the absolute power of television, consumerism, capitalism, and hierarchy, yet there is no genuine attempt to abolish the aforementioned forms of domination. This follows from the fact that postmodernism’s rejection of any type of “absolute truth” can be used as a convenient way to dismiss revolutionary movements, as revolutionary movements that proclaim a better way to live are really little more than false proclamations of truth. Postmodernism represents the most perfected form of a theory made entirely irrelevant to revolutionary struggles.

While postmodernism may be the heir of Marxism (7), Marxism still exists as a somewhat popular form of theory within academic and “activist” circles. In its present state, Marxism is a theory that has outlived its usefulness, as it has become so diluted that there is little point in dragging its dead corpse along. Marxism, once explicitly linked with class struggle and movements for a revolutionary reconstruction of society, has become a philosophy of inaction. Marxism has become “safe” for academics and “activists,” as it has been completely confined to books that do little more than gather dust on bookshelves, while to be a Marxist one need not make a serious effort to change society, as such an effort would certainly be seen as abnormal by one’s comrades. Moreover, Marxism has become a theory to which elitist intellectuals and “activists” can cling, as much of the twentieth century development of Marxism has centered around the idea of “vanguard” groups and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” under the absurd claim that “professional” revolutionaries must lead the masses in the revolution and in any post-revolutionary period–assertions which are a complete bastardization of the democratic and libertarian tendencies within Marxism (8). Marxism has become a cult-like religion devoted to the study of Marxist texts, which have become akin to the dogma of the Christian church. This cult-like reading of Marxist texts and the ensuing arguments over minute details of theoretical writings nearly 150 years old, run contrary to Marx’s intentions. Marxists would do well to remember Marx’s rejection of “personality cults (9),” as well as his statement, “Je ne suis pas Marxiste” and instead of focusing on his words as dogma, they should focus on revolutionary movements (10). Indeed, it is also true that much of the problem with Marxism, especially in the United States, is that Marxists have allowed its legacy to be shaped by critics from the right and academics, both of whom have rendered Marxism a theory that exists only within a specific historical context. Moreover, the conditions that led to the development of Marxism, the intensified production and exploitation of the industrial revolution, has been removed as capitalism has become rationalized, which is of course not true, but such an interpretation have nonetheless become quite common (11). Marxism has lost its revolutionary potential–it has been reduced to a “theoretical lens” which can be applied to history or literature, in order to construct “Marxist Interpretations” of history and literature or a “badge” which one can wear–completely eliminating its previous relationship with class struggle and revolutionary movements (12).

Anarchism, historically the “alternative” to Marxism, although few ever saw it as such due both to the misunderstanding of those on the “left” as well as outright distortions by mainstream society and history, has experienced a decline similar to Marxism. Anarchism no longer has any ties to revolutionary struggles, beyond the participation of anarchists within larger movements. The lasting legacy of anarchism is bomb throwing and violence–the involvement of anarchists in the struggle for the 8-hour day, the involvement of anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Voltairine De Cleyre in the development of feminism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the development of militant trade unions in Europe during the same period, and the struggle of anarchists in Spain against the fascism of Franco and the collectivization and organization of Spanish industry along libertarian lines in the 1930s, have all been ignored by history books. Anarchism, unlike Marxism, has been almost completely neglected by academics and instead it has been made irrelevant to the majority of people by the actions of people on the “left” who have dismissed anarchism as being an absurd quest for utopia, by historians and governments who have dismissed it as violence, and by anarchists themselves who have made little more than token attempts at outreach outside traditional “left” circles. Indeed, if people have any knowledge of contemporary anarchist activity, it is only in relationship to the use of the black bloc tactic at protests, which effectively replaces the legacy of bomb throwing with that of window smashing. There have been few serious attempts to make anarchism revolutionary; instead, most anarchists have remained within the ghettos of the punk scene, the middle-class, and the so-called “dropout” culture (13). While there have been interesting projects coming out of the anarchist milieu in the past ten years, including the development of infoshops to share information across the world, the development of the Independent Media Centers on the internet, the non-hierarchical forms of organization that have been used in the movement against capitalist globalization, and numerous theoretical journals–anarchism, like Marxism, is not currently a revolutionary movement.

Both Marxism and anarchism, as they currently exist, are not revolutionary–just as there is no theory that is innately revolutionary. Theory is kept within the small ghettos of academia, published in journals nobody reads, and dominated by people who are not serious about bringing about the revolutionary changes that must be at the core of all theory. As university students, we play a key role in the system that reproduces theory as a means of intellectual masturbation while removing its revolutionary potential. If we recognize this role, we can confront and abolish theory as theory, instead making theory something revolutionary—by making it a catalyst and component of action. Theory can no longer afford to be an irrelevant academic sideshow to reality; instead, it must intertwined with genuine and serious efforts aimed at the revolutionary transformation of society. Let us take theory out of the books and reclaim it from the intellectuals, let us bring theory into our hearts and minds as inspiration for revolutionary action–let us abolish theory!

Notes

(1) By theory I mean the revolutionary theories found on the “left”, the most common of which is Marxism.

(2) Graffiti painted on the walls of Nanterre University during the events leading up to the revolt/insurrection during May and June of

1968 in France—cited in Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Narin, The Beginning of the End, (Verso, 1998), 49.

(2) “Praxis” is a word that seems to have been forgotten by the majority of people who consider themselves theorists or proponents of theory, an increasingly fatalistic tone taken by many “theorists” who argue that any attempts to radically change the world are destined to fail because of complete and total domination of power. Many theorists have, rather than confronting power, been increasingly interested in simply observing the complexity of power without making any substantive effort at challenging it.

(4) This was of course before they were bastardized by the authoritarians, and later, by a dogmatic adherence to the writings of Marx, along with an almost cult-like fascination with everything Marx ever did, where once directly linked to mass movements designed to transform society.

(5) “On the Poverty of Student Life” in Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), 337.

(6) I am thinking specifically of the critiques of Stalinism and the calls for a more democratic marxism in journals such as Socialisme ou Barbarie, journals that had much wider circulations than the writings of the situationists. These journals were more interested in the spread of revolutionary Marxism than inconsequential academic debates. Furthermore, the use of “marxist” with a lowercase “m” is to show that these theorists were more interested in marxism as a way of transforming society than the cult-like worship of Marx that is common among “Marxists.”

(7) According to some academics postmodernism is the heir to Marxism, although postmodernism really has little in common with Marx. See Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language, (Lyceum, 2001), 241. This association of postmodernism with Marxism is quite common among critics of postmodernism coming from a “right-wing” perspective while many on the “left-wing” find that postmodernism offers a convenient tie to Marxism without requiring one to actually do anything to change the world.

(8) See: V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, (International Publishers, 1943) for a development of the idea that revolutions can be led by the few and that “dictatorships” can be instituted in the post-revolutionary period. Also see, Friedrich Engels, “On Authority,” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton, 1978), 730-733, for an early defense of consolidating power in the hands of the few.

(9) Karl Marx, “Against Personality Cults,” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton, 1978), 521.

(10) “Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich,” 1882, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_11_02.htm

(11) Of course, anyone who opens their eyes can see that such assertions are absolute rubbish. Exploitation is still, and will always be, an essential component of capitalist production. Moreover, the absurd notion that we live in a “classless” society, therefore rendering Marx’s class analysis useless, is ridiculous.

(12) This is not to say that there are not many “activists” and groups around the world that call themselves Marxist. However, the majority of these “activists” and groups make no serious attempt to make Marxism a theory for revolutionary change. There is more to being a Marxist than being able to provide citations for his famous quotes or using his writings to simply interpret the world or works of literature. Most “Marxists” would do well to remember the following: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it,” something which most “Marxists” are all to eager to forget. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton, 1978), 145.

(13) This is not to say that anarchism has not been growing in popularity in the past few years, and indeed it has, but there has not been a large-scale movement to appeal to people outside of circles traditionally sympathetic to anarchism.

From Classroom Radicals to Transforming Society: An Imperative Shift

Reprinted from Freedom Toast (April 2003)

“Our dreams are their nightmares” (1)

As we contemplate our futures after the university, it is important that those of us who have an interest in changing society do not completely ignore what it was learned during our time at the university. The lessons learned in our classes—the systemic problems that need to be changed, the techniques for changing these problems learned in our activism, and our idealism all must be retained if we are to have any effect on the world around us (2). For the majority of students, graduate school or a “nine-to-five” career are the two choices offered by society, both of which integrate the student into the very system that they spent much of their college years fighting against. For many “radicals,” graduate school is the more attractive alternative, and for good reason. It gives the student the chance to study what they want and provides them with the university environment in which radical ideas are traditionally encouraged and supported. While some good may come out of graduate school, to a large extent graduate school is a way of pacifying “radicals”–isolating them in the university environment during the years in which they are most energetic and preparing them for university teaching jobs in which they will be further removed from the everyday experience of the majority in society, jobs in which they will play the role of the “token radical professor”–a professor talking about the changes that need to be made but unable to put forth the time needed to bring these changes. Anyone making a serious attempt at being “radical” will no doubt reject the notion of a career as a means of instigating revolutionary change, but some “radicals” are seduced by the prospect of “working within the system.” We must not fall into the common trap of “radical student,” radical only until we can get a high paying job in order to afford a luxury car, or even worse, until we can become integrated into the system under the inane notion of “working within the system” a phrase that is nothing more than a euphemism for selling out everything that we have worked towards (3). The system is setup to handle challenges from within and thrives off the labor of those who have been convinced that they can change things by working from within–there is no way one can change anything by having a career, no matter how much one tries to justify their decision (4). Our post-university experience cannot simply be integration into the capitalist system, a system responsible for the conditions we fought against during our university activism, post-university action must involve a concerted effort to break from and abolish the system of ruthless competition and dehumanization brought forth by capitalism (5).

The most radical thing we can undertake is to change the world–a change that will entail the complete destruction of existing forms of power and oppression. As Bakunin said, “the passion for destruction is also a creative passion,” and we must destroy the existing forms of power and oppression, existing both within ourselves and within society, in order to unleash the creativity necessary to build the world of our dreams (6). How do we go from the nightmarish reality of contemporary society into a world that will allow for the shift from existence into the realm of life? It is impossible to say, and indeed anyone that tries to “sell” you the proper way to bring about change, whether in a book or a pompous newspaper articles, should be ignore. Any movement to bring about changes of this magnitude must be instigated by the people seeking a better life. However, one thing is certain—such changes will never come about by working within the system. It is essential that we oppose the system by refusing to participate in the activities that reproduce its power–consumerism, careers, and politics. It would of course doom “radicals” to complete irrelevancy if they abandoned the current system entirely, as nothing is more marginal than a small number of “radicals” engaged in a futile project to destroy capitalism, but at the same time, one must never be seduced by the prospect of “working within the system.” Instead, the system should be approached only in terms of how its products and its existence can be used to undermine its control. To this end, the idea of “dual power” or “building a new society within the shell of the old” is essential–the system must be milked for whatever can be obtained from it, but we must never forget that our ultimate goal is its destruction. In practical terms, this means accepting the fact that we cannot be “anti-capitalist” if we reinforce the system daily by purchasing worthless products, we cannot be “against sexism” if we continue to operate under sexist assumptions, or worse, advocate a sexist “division of labor” in our activities, just as we cannot not be “revolutionaries” if we simply read books about past revolutions without doing anything about the current society.

So, where do we go from here? Wherever we want! We must live in pursuit of dreams—and actually pursue them–not holding on to this idea of “pursuing our dreams” in the same sense that it is conveyed on Hallmark cards or promised by Nike if you buy their new shoes. We all know that a new sports car cannot truly bring about freedom and to this end we must look at the values used to sell you their products, in this case freedom, and work towards true freedom. After all it is true freedom that we want, the freedom to control our own lives and act in pursuit of our dreams–not the false freedom offered by a new car. To achieve this, we need to shift from the idea of “what is possible” or “what is realistic” (two great phrases used by activists to render themselves useless) to the question of “what we want.” The “possible” and the “realistic” assumes that there are only certain things which can be achieved within this system—and indeed there are–but it is no way to effectively attack the systems to which we desire to change as the “possible” and “realistic” leaves out all possibility of change that comes from outside the system. If we begin our activism from the position of what is “possible” or “realistic” we have already set ourselves up for a certain level of defeat, as the system only allows the change that it wants. Imagine the best possible world that could be created within the confines of the system compared with the world that could be created by people committed to making it so that everyone was free to pursue their dreams and desires–the later is infinitely more beautiful and more than worth the work it will take to create.

But this is not possible “the liberals” argue–one must work within the system, it is our only way of “changing” society. Oh how mistaken they are–by working within the system, we support the system, the system will never allow anything else. In the aforementioned paragraphs, it was explained that one should not ignore the system entirely, but to put all of our hopes for change into the system will only guarantee our failure. The only way things can be challenged is by working towards the world we want to see. While this may sound like irrelevant and idealistic rambling, it really is true. When we make our dreams our goals, we unleash the only force capable of improving society. The “liberals” will argue that this is nonsense and that the only way to achieve our goals is through “reform,” but after all, they have been too integrated into the system to realize that there are chances for actually changing the society and we have seen what they have done–social programs that are decimated by budget cuts a few years after they are passed. But how does this, or can it, actually work for activist groups? Surprisingly, it is possible to pursue activist goals on the premise of “what we want” without becoming bogged down in self-important rhetoric without actually changing things. In Canada, a country similar to the United States in terms of its capitalist development, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has been operating since 1990 with the goal of “eliminating poverty,” a goal that bypasses liberal “reforms” and attacks the system that creates poverty. OCAP seeks to mobilize poor and homeless people to fight back, through militant and direct action, against the system responsible for the creation of poverty. Through a variety of tactics, OCAP has pursued its mission to “fight to win” against those that hold economic and political power, and as a result, they have won numerous victories—victories that have not been achieved by asking what the system allows (7). OCAP is just one example of the successes that can be won when activists actually get serious. The numerous squatted social centres in Europe provide another example–rather than waiting for low-cost housing, people have taken over abandoned buildings and made them community spaces. Furthermore, the 1999 shutdown of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was certainly not considered “realistic” or “possible,” but that did not stop people from using direct action to achieve what they wanted. We can win (and indeed we may only be able to win) if we start from the position of what we want, not from what is possible.

For this to work, we are going to need to start by reevaluating the basic assumptions that structure our lives. For starters, we do not need to choose a career after college; we can chose not to work in a traditional job. We can achieve, and indeed deserve, much more than integration into a work force designed to support ritualistic consumption. Getting a long without a “career” may seem difficult at first, but in the end, it is the only option that will allow us to take control of our lives. Imagine the revolutionary potential of a whole generation of people learning to love and live without the constraints of the 9 to 5 job. We will have the capability to change the world, not only through collective action and mutual aid, but also by being able to relate to people as people. Freed from the cycle of work and consumption, which pits neighbors against neighbors and forces relationships to be evaluated in terms of “cost benefit analysis,” we will actually be able to appreciate and cultivate what is truly beautiful about humanity. The critics will no doubt argue that if everyone withdrew from the system of work and consumption that the entire capitalist system would break down–but such a break is exactly what we should be seeking, as this destruction will be the final step that allows for the creation of a new world.

So how are we going to do it? We need to start by actually being serious and not just talking all the time about what we want to do–we need to actually do something. Moreover, it is naïve to think that this will not require a large amount of work, indeed it will, but at least it will not be the “work” that we are forced to do to get by under capitalism. We need to reorganize our lives on the principles of mutual aid–helping others in anyway we can. We can trade labor, trading or donating our skills in bike repair, while the people that know plumbing help us, volunteering to do childcare, or whatever else. We can live lives without careers if we shift our emphasis in life from competition to cooperation, no longer will we be stuck in a stage of existence, separated from authentic life. We can plant gardens and share the fruits of our labor with those around us. We can get along without needing to fear those around us. We can truly love our friends and neighbors without constantly measuring our status against theirs. We can create new institutions that will provide alternatives to capitalism, while also working to improve the existing institutions, as long as we remain aware of the fact that the old institutions are merely temporary improvements and that our ultimate goal is to create a new world with new institutions. So let’s work towards what we want, not what is possible–we have a new society to create.

Notes

(1) Graffiti from the walls of occupied Nanterre University, May 1968.

(2) However, I do think a good argument could be made that we should forget much of what we learned in school, especially as it relates to writing in a manner that alienates the majority of the population. Moreover, the opposition to the current system on a theoretical basis, which is fostered in a variety of departments, must be abolished. We can only change the system by action, never by theoretical babbling. Even this paper is a pointless exercise unless it motivates its readers and authors to put it down and actually do something about the conditions we hate.

(3) If you see your post-university “activism” involving a job “working within the system” you might as well drop out of radical politics now, because you will not do shit.

(4) We should pursue a strategy of “dual power” to destroy the system–working within it to gain temporary improvements while also creating institutions which will replace it and eventually render it useless.

(5) This is not to say that I am naïve enough to think that my post-college activities will bring about the end of capitalism–that would be absurd. But at least I am willing to try.

(6) Bakunin, http://www.kat.gr/kat/history/Mod/Leaders/Bakunin.htm

(7) For more information on the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, visit their website at http://www.ocap.ca